A gouache painting from Fanny Hensel’s music room is purchased for Berlin

These types of paintings were often commissioned by clients who were about to move out of their old quarters, They document the occupants’ social rank, taste, and personality. They also helped satisfy the 19th century public’s growing curiosity about the private milieu of famous scholars, artists, and musicians.

Helfft’s gouaches of the music room became unique family mementos. With the death of the siblings Fanny and Felix (1847) and the impending sale of the Reck’sche Palais at Leipziger Strasse 3 (1850), the Mendelssohn Bartholdys and Hensels had to say goodbye to a special home. The room portraits commemorate that home, how it felt during Fanny’s lifetime and visualize the setting for many of the anecdotes about her. For the modern viewer, the portraits also provide insight into the social constraints that women were subject to in the first half of the 19th century. In Fanny Hensel’s case, this meant having to reconcile her musical talent with her many other roles – as the daughter of a banking dynasty, and as a sister, wife, and mother. Transgressions of the boundary separating the private from the public sphere was a recurring theme in the biography of this baptized granddaughter of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and she was ultimately denied the chance to pursue a professional musical career. So we enter the music room as a 19th century space replete with gender-specific clichés. The sewing table and the grand piano stand juxtaposed with each other as opponents.

Helfft’s celebrated panorama of the music room (23.4 cm x 30 cm) was owned by the family until 2005, when it was sold by a German auction house and acquired by the Thaw Collection. Said collection was later donated to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. Upon contacting the Cooper-Hewitt, the Mendelssohn-Gesellschaft was able to satisfy itself that the gouache painting occupies a worthy place in the museum’s splendid collection of 19th-century interiors. Although bringing the work back to Berlin was not up for discussion, the museum did indicate its willingness to collaborate on future temporary exhibitions.

In 2009, a hitherto unknown partial view of the music room (31.5 cm x 23.7 cm) emerged on the art market and was put up for auction, the Mendelssohn-Gesellschaft decided to act swiftly, keen to prevent a replay of the events of 2005. After the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin had been outbid by a Berlin art dealer, negotiations were launched that eventually persuaded the dealer to sell the gouache in May of 2010. Although the acquisition was partially financed by the Music Department with the Mendelssohn Archive of the Staatsbibliothek, the bulk of the funds were secured from the Hermann-Reemtsma-Stiftung in Hamburg, thanks to the efforts of the Mendelssohn-Gesellschaft.

The Stiftung stipulated that the painting be displayed in the Mendelssohn Remise as part of the exhibition Gegenwelt Leipziger Strasse 3, so long as this is appropriate from a conservational standpoint. The gouache shows a corner of the music room with Fanny’s grand piano and a splendid music stand modelled after the prayer book lecterns of the Italian Renaissance. Also visible is one of the family’s set of baroque Brunswick chairs, two of which are now on display in the Remise. The painting reveals that the angled shape of the corner of Fanny’s room was due to a walled-off chimney. The topmost painting visible on the wall probably depicts the scene of Christ in Emmaus. The baroque flair of the picture frames and the chair articulate a departure from the taste for classicism that had prevailed in Berlin until the 1830s. They bespeak a renewed interest in the artistic achievements of the 18th century, one that also became audible in the Mendelssohns’ famous Sunday concerts and in the oeuvre of the composer siblings.